This is true throughout the book. As he writes about his childhood, his abusive stepfather, his mother’s absence due to her military deployment in Iraq, the street violence and the sexual assault, Fleming assumes that the mere description of each of these struggles will be enough to communicate his inner turmoil. Were he a different kind of writer, it may have been; but Fleming is no stylist. His prose is often riddled with cliché, at times purple to the point of hyperbole. (About his literary progenitors: “They sang — so I, too, sing. I sing so you, too, will sing. And others will be freed, but if — and only if — you decide to sing.”) Elsewhere the writing is simply bland and unexciting. One wishes Fleming were more invested in mining the emotional terrain rather than the surface plot of his upbringing, that he’d tried to find his way toward understanding the human flaws and frailties of the biological father who disowned him for selling drugs, of his mother, siblings, stepfather, fellow drug dealers or anyone else around him. He seems uninterested in the way others’ stories intersect with his, aside from the roles they play as satellites in the arc he has chosen to share.
The longer I sat with this book, however, the clearer its purpose became, and with it the reasons behind my criticisms. After his failed suicide attempt, Fleming has to decide how to move forward with his life, and his mother, now a veteran, uses her allotted G.I. Bill funds to help him continue his college education. Fleming returns to Liberty, Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., but he is discouraged by his lack of academic skill, as he has not yet committed any energy to such pursuits. Then an English professor calls him into her office after he’s plagiarized a paper and, instead of punishing him, offers to help: “I’m not your enemy,” she tells him. She introduces him to “two other Black men who’d charted their own journeys to literacy,” Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass. Fleming’s intellectual curiosity is ignited, and he is set on a path of discovery in the rich tradition of Black public scholarship.
Here is the point: Fleming experienced a “renaissance,” as he calls it, and it happened through engagement with great Black thinkers past and present. (Among them is Cornel West, who wrote the foreword to this memoir and helped to spark Fleming’s interest in oration and then debate.) The streets had guided him in one direction, pop culture in another, basketball in still another — and at the end of all those roads were heartbreak and ignorance, by Fleming’s account. But through study he was able to rise, to forge a new identity and emerge as the successful scholar and entrepreneur that he is today.
The narrative of “Miseducated” is meant to be inspirational rather than inquisitive. And that’s fine. Every writer has a different mission. The events of Fleming’s life may indeed inspire a young Black child in a situation similar to the one Fleming survived, who shares the kind of aspirations that Fleming found to animate his professional and intellectual development. One day one of these youths might write his or her own memoir, and hopefully it will fill in the narrative gaps to make a much more dynamic story.